I often get asked why a solution to our health and wellness does not last for the rest of our lives. The answer is that as our life changes, so do our nutritional needs.
We all need macronutrients, or carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, as we all need micronutrients, or vitamins and minerals, to ensure we have good health. But the needs for each of these vary as we grow and age. Our bodies change and our lifestyle changes, and so does our need for nutrients.
I will not get into the details of how much of each nutrient we need at each stage. Instead I will highlight one food important at each stage to exemplify how our nutritional needs change as we develop.
I also want to clarify that I do not mean that there is only one nutrient that is important at each stage of our life, but rather, that nutritional needs vary with age. A healthy and balanced diet is necessary throughout our lives.
The stages I will cover are pregnancy, first year of life, ages 1 to 3, ages 3 to 6, ages 6 to 12, adolescence, adulthood, and senior years. I am adding a special section for athletes to highlight that we need to account for our lifestyles.
I used Krause’s Food and The Nutrition Care Process (Mahan, Escott-Stump, & Raymond, 2012) and Williams’ Essentials of Nutrition and Diet Therapy (Schlenker & Roth, 2011) as references.
The nutrients that mothers-to-be consume affect their health as well as the health of the fetus. It is important that expectant mothers consume adequate supplies of iron. Iron is used to make blood and to carry oxygen needed for the mother and the baby. Iron helps prevent weakness and fatigue in the mother, and it helps the baby grow and develop at an appropriate and healthy weight. A pregnant woman needs to consume at least 27 mg of iron per day.
First Year of Life
For the first six months of life it is preferable for an infant to be given breast-milk. It contains all of the necessary nutrients that an infant requires, as well as immune supporting factors that help the baby fight diseases. Breast-milk can be given during the first year of life, but beginning at month six, semisolid foods, such as cereals, can be given in addition to breast-milk. This helps the baby make a transition into solid foods.
Ages 1 to 3
Protein needs increase in ages 1 to 3 because muscle and tissues are growing rapidly. A toddler should consume at least 13g of protein daily, and at least half should be from an animal source, since this is more biologically available to the toddler.
Ages 3 to 6
Children aged 3 to 6 are continuing to grow and develop their bones and muscles. Calcium is an important nutrient to ensure adequate mineralization and maintenance of bones. Preschoolers need at least 1,000 mg per day of calcium, which can be obtained from dairy foods, such as milk and cheese, eggs, and meats.
Ages 6 to 12
Children aged 6 to 12 are in the throws of learning, and because their growth rate is not as fast as in previous years, they may not need as much food per body weight as they did in earlier stages. However, they begin to eat a more adult-type diet. It is important to focus on healthy carbohydrates, and not just simple sugars frequently found in junk and processed foods. For example, they should consume at least 5 ounces of grains a day, preferably whole.
In adolescence adequate protein intake again becomes important. It is necessary for muscle mass development, growth spurts typical of that stage, and puberty. In order to go through this transitional phase, girls need at least 46 g of protein per day and boys need at least 52 g of protein per day.
Vitamin D is important in adulthood, and yet Vitamin D deficiency is common amongst those who spend a lot of time indoors, such as working in an office. Vitamin D is obtained from direct exposure to sunlight, as well as fortified foods like milk. Vitamin D is necessary to support calcium absorption and to maintain healthy bones. If inadequate vitamin D is available because of less sunlight exposure, it may be necessary to take a supplement. Most healthy adults need around 600 IU (International Units) per day.
Natural fiber is important in senior years to prevent constipation and encourage regular bowel movements. Natural fiber sources include whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, and legumes. Around 30 grams of fiber per day are recommended.
Accommodations to nutritional needs are necessary for health conditions, as well as lifestyle. For instance, when the body is at rest, carbohydrates and fats are the sources of fuel for our bodies. However, during exercise, carbohydrates are the primary source of fuel, indicating athletes need higher consumption of carbohydrates than non-athletes.
To understand this, it is important to explain how energy is required based on the type of exercise. When there is a short burst of exercise lasting just a few seconds, energy comes from ATP (adenosine triphosphate) and CP (creatine phosphate) from the muscle. Energy bursts that last from 30 seconds to two minutes use muscle glycogen (a carbohydrate) as fuel. Exercise that lasts more than two minutes primarily requires glucose (also a carbohydrate) in the blood and glycogen in the muscle, and as these get depleted, it uses fat stored in adipose tissue.
Athletes need 60 to 70% of their diet to come from carbohydrates, where non-athletes need only 45 to 65%. Complex carbohydrates are preferable to maintain balanced blood glucose levels. However, athletes do not need increased fat consumption.
Although our nutritional needs change during our lifetime, a healthy and balanced diet is necessary throughout our lives. It is important to make changes and modifications as we develop, as it is to make adjustments for any health concerns.
For healthy individuals, iron consumption is important during pregnancy, breast-milk is important during the first year of our lives, protein when we are 1 to 3 years old, calcium when we are 3 to 6, healthy carbohydrates when we are 6 to 12, protein again during adolescence, vitamin D in adulthood, and fiber in our senior years.
However, we should place special attention to address our lifestyle and health needs. For instance, athletes should consume increased amounts of carbohydrates to have enough energy during exercise.
Mahan, L. K., Escott-Stump, S., & Raymond, J. L. (2012). Krause’s Food and The Nutrition Care Process (13th ed.). St. Louis, MO: Elsevier Saunders.
Schlenker, E. D. & Roth, S. L. (2011). Williams’ Essentials of Nutrition and Diet Therapy- Revised Reprint (10th ed.). St. Louis, MO: Elsevier Mosby.